Several documentarians — including Academy Award winners Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney — called Wednesday for the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the “pervasive harassment of citizens who use cameras and social media to document and distribute footage of law enforcement.”
The response comes in the wake of series of episodes where people who recorded and distributed videos of police killing people faced backlash — and in some cases arrests and criminal charges.
The full statement posted to Documentary.org reads:
"We, the documentary community, call upon the Department of Justice to investigate a troubling pattern of abuse of power: the pervasive harassment of citizens who use cameras and social media to document and distribute footage of law enforcement. Whether they identify as citizen journalists, activists, or civilians, it is vital we defend the rights of these individuals to use video as a means of criticizing unjust police activity. We ask for a full investigation into any and all actions taken against them by police departments, and the larger pattern of abuse that has emerged on a federal, state, and local level, and the threat it poses to free speech and a free press.
We also call upon our peers in the journalistic community to investigate and report on these abuses. Chris LeDay, Abdullah Muflahi, Diamond Reynolds, Kevin Moore and Ramsey Orta are just a few of the names of the individuals who have used personal cameras and social media to shine a light on police brutality. By investigating other instances of police violence captured on video by citizens, and what consequences they may have faced, we can expand our awareness of the problem and take stock of the damages."
At the time of its posting, the statement was signed by more than 40 filmmakers, who are behind projects such as Hoop Dreams, Amy, The Square, Gideon’s Army, and The Invisible War.
The effort was spurred on by filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe, who penned an open letter to his fellow documentarians:
To the Documentary Community,
Armed only with camera phones, citizen journalists have shattered America’s myth of racial equality. Instead of garnering Pulitzers and Peabodys, they have been targeted, harassed and arrested by members of the very institution whose abuses they seek to expose.
As filmmakers, we may differ on our definition of “documentary.” But many, if not all of us, harbor a core belief: that images have insurmountable power. Not merely to create change, but to trigger fresh thoughts, to nudge our audiences toward a new seat in the theater of public opinion, one whose vantage point endows them with a more informed and empathetic view.
In his letter, Sutcliffe, one of the directors of (T)ERROR, which won the Special Jury Award for Breakout First Feature at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, references the plights of several people who shared videos of police killings on social media, only to face reprisals from law enforcement.
On July 6, Chris LeDay — who was one of the first people to upload a video of the Alton Sterling shooting by Baton Rouge police — was arrested when he arrived at work at Dobbins Air Force Base.
LeDay was detained by police from the base and the nearby Dunwoody, Georgia police department, who told him that he had an outstanding warrant for assault and battery. LeDay was taken into custody and spent 26 hours in Dekalb County Jail. He later learned that the only warrants on his record were for outstanding traffic tickets. He paid an $1,100 fine and was released.
BuzzFeed News spoke to LeDay this week, who says after a month of waiting for the misunderstandings in his case to be worked out, he finally got his job back. He says that he lost about $4,000 in wages.
“They were flat out wrong," he said, "especially for something I didn’t do.”
Another man who filmed the Sterling shooting, Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the convenience store where the shooting took place, was detained by police for hours — denying him access to his cell phone, preventing him from contacting his family or an attorney — while they confiscated his store’s security footage.
BuzzFeed News reported last month that Muflahi has filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge police department.
On the same day LeDay was arrested, Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile's fiancée, was arrested while streaming the aftermath of Castille's killing by a Minnesota police officer on Facebook Live.
In another incident, in April 2015, Kevin Moore filmed Baltimore Police’s arrest of Freddie Gray, capturing officers putting him into the back of a police van where he would suffer fatal injuries. Moore was arrested two weeks later, though the charges were later dropped.
Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association, which published the statement on Documentary.org, said that it’s important to take steps to protect people from harassment.
“If it wasn’t for these people taking these risks, we would likely not have any of the primary source material, the evidence, that shows us just how challenged the relationship between police and communities of color have been,” Kilmurry says.
BuzzFeed News reached out to the Justice Department for comment.